James Baldwin’s body of work represents a strong example of the intersection between politics and poetry. His keen sense of Black culture and how it bumped into White culture is reflected in his novels, essays, screenplays, speeches, and poems – he knew the context of racism and translated the context into several different art forms. While many were able to access his essays in publications such as The Progressive and by reading his novels once the first was published in 1953 at the time it was written, Lynn Orilla Scott and D. Quentin Miller bring to life his work today. In their synopses of trends in literary criticism of Baldwin’s body of work, both illustrate how the relevance of Baldwin’s body of work is resurging so that we, in 2019, can access his art in order to understand the present day (Lynn Orilla Scott; D.Quentin Miller). In that spirit, this essay will analyze his poem, “Staggerlee wonders”, to illustrate how Baldwin is able to weave together politics and poetry in order for his readers to see how Black and White culture clash with each other.
Biographical and Historical Context
Born in 1924, James Baldwin experienced the Great Depression first hand and intensely: Baldwin came of age in Harlem in a family of 11. In biographical interviews, he reveals that he did not experience overt discrimination based on race until his late teens, after he graduated from high school and worked in New Jersey laying railroad tracks (Field). To add to his mystic, Baldwin served as a preacher at a Pentecostal church while in high school in Harlem; one of his teachers in high school was another aspiring writer Countee Cullen (Field; J. Baldwin, No Name in the Street).
By 1958, at the age of 34, Baldwin was an established American writer. His life as a writer enabled him to meet several well-known thinkers such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957, just as King was in the midst of writing Strive Toward Freedom (Field). Baldwin found King to be “a younger, much-loved, and menaced brother” who was “very slight and vulnerable to be taking on such tremendous odds” (Oates 128). There was a sense of awe of King by Baldwin, who, a few years after their first meeting, was present during a sermon that King preached in Atlanta after King had stood trial in Montgomery, Alabama. In the sermon, King surmised that Whites, like those who were part of the trial, “who knowingly defended wrong,” were ruled by fear, to which Baldwin reflected: “He [King] made the trials of these White people far more vivid than anything he himself might have endured” (Oates 156). In several historical accounts of King’s life and of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin emerges as a muse, a critic, and an activist (L. V. Baldwin, There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr.; L. V. Baldwin, Behind the Public Veil: The Humanness of Martin Luther King Jr.; Oates; Payne).
Baldwin, the Poet
Nikki Finney, who wrote the introduction to the most recent edition of Baldwin’s poetry called Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, argues that Baldwin’s writing style was poetic in and of itself, and, further, that he wrote poetry to distill his thinking (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems). Baldwin’s need to distill is supported by his prolific writing. For example, by simply reading the first paragraph of the two-page epilogue to No Name in the Street, the reader is exposed to the breadth and depth of Baldwin’s reflection upon the 1960’s. Read with a 2019 lens, Baldwin’s perspective is utterly profound:
This book has been much delayed by trials, assassinations, funerals, and despair. Nor is the American crisis, which is part of a global, historical crisis, likely to resolve itself soon. An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives. No matter, so long as we accept that our responsibility is to the newborn: the acceptance of responsibility contains the key to the necessary evolving skill. (J. Baldwin, No Name in the Street 196)
His use of metaphor brings to life the intense cultural evolutions that America experiences at it evolved from its independence in 1776 until now, and easily defines our role in the evolution: we need to support the evolution. Or we readers need to serve as midwives in America’s re-birth to follow Baldwin’s metaphor.
This re-birth that Baldwin sees can be found in “Staggerlee wonders,” a poem that was originally published in 1982, just a few years prior to Baldwin’s death in 1987. In this poem, Baldwin takes on the voice of Stagger Lee, who is legendary (Brown). One legend has it that Stagger was a pimp in St. Louis and that he shot Billy, another Black man from the underbelly of society, because Billy stole Stagger’s white Stetson hat. It is a legend pregnant with symbolism and is revisited over and over again through generations of African Americans (Brown). White folks celebrate the legend in songs, including those by The Grateful Dead and Amy Winehouse (the Dead have a twist on the story where a woman takes down Stagger, for killing “my Billy”) (Hobart; Andrewes; The Annotated “Stagger Lee”). On the one hand, this is a legend that reinforces the White stereotype that Black people will kill each other over a hat – especially Black people who live in the city; especially Black people who are pimps; especially Black people who drink while gambling in the wee hours of the morning. On the other hand, Stagger can represent truth and justice, because sometimes in the oral history of Stagger Lee, Billy is a police officer. Baldwin presents this representation of truth and justice masterfully (Miller).
The Poem: Staggerlee wonders
Baldwin’s “Staggerlee wonders” poem is seventeen pages, written in four parts, and alternates between statements by Staggerlee and imagined conversations between Staggerlee and White folks such as “the Great Man’s Lady” – these conversations are indicated by italicized words: “Ma! he’s making eyes at me.” Taken as a whole, the poem serves as a near-perfect mirror of how minority and majority cultures bump into each other and tumble with each other and how Black people persist through their oppression by White people.
The first part begins with Staggerlee wondering what “pink and alabaster” people think of Black people. Baldwin poignantly uses the term “nigger” to refer to Black people, emphasizing the negative origins of the word, after all, it is Staggerlee who is wondering – Staggerlee, the legend, whose story emphasizing negative stereotypes of the other is told over and over again in song and verse (Jerry; Mencken; Motley and Craig-Henderson). While this dehumanizing term is used for humans that Staggerlee relates to best, “they” is used to explain a culture that he at once understands, yet does not understand. In setting this stage about how Staggerlee wonders about Whites, Baldwin sequences observations about how they (White people) interact with the world:
They have never honoured [sic] a single treaty
made with anyone, anywhere.
The walls of their cities
are as foul as their children. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 4)
This section ends with a conversation between Staggerlee and a White lady:
No, said the Great Man’s Lady,
I’m against abortion.
I always feel that’s killing somebody.
Well, what about capital punishment?
I think the death penalty helps.
Up to our ass in niggers
on Death Row.
don’t you cry for me! (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 6)
This opening part gives portraits of the hypocrisy that sometimes exists with oppression, particularly with the image of who is most likely on Death Row: Black men who White people are okay killing. In this case of hypocrisy, Baldwin illustrates how absurd it can be to fight for the rights of the unborn, yet not fight for the rights of the living. Why not stand up for those who land on Death Row, especially given what we know about police discrimination and, in particular, unlawful practices in the South? (Alexander; Stevenson). This illustration sets the stage for the subsequent parts that lead the reader through the evolution from this oppression.
Part two begins with Staggerlee wondering “how niggers should help themselves,” again from a majority perspective. The lyrics to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” are used to emphasize that a common answer for the majority is for divine intervention. Or maybe the hope that the minority would just disappear (Brown). Yet, Staggerlee moves on to emphasize the difference between he and the majority culture:
My days are not their days.
My ways are not their ways. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 7)
Then Staggerlee begins to wonder about the notion of color blindness, which when one takes into account that this was written in the early 1980’s, highlights a concept that began to emerge in the popular press by people who aimed to raise awareness about race (and to quell racial incidents) (Vogel). This notion of color blindness led Staggerlee to wonder about what they do not want to see:
What is it that this people
Surely, they cannot be so deluded
as to imagine that their crimes are original? (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 8)
After a list of ways Whites have attacked Blacks, Staggerlee wonders whether or not they realize that “we are all liars and cowards” but then a thought occurs to him:
Then, perhaps they imagine
That their crimes are not crimes? (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 9)
These philosophical questions bring to the forefront one theme of the poem: the hypocrisy of the majority White culture in America. Baldwin keenly points out that Staggerlee is not engaged in these thoughts to clarify the beliefs of the majority:
They know that no one will appear
to turn back time,
they know it, just as they know
that the earth has opened before
and will open again, just as they know
that their empire is falling, is doomed,
nothing can hold it up, nothing.
We are not talking about belief. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 10)
Rather, Staggerlee takes the reader step-by-step through the evolution of America that occurred in the mid- and late-20th century, acknowledging that change has occurred. And Staggerlee anticipates the change will not stop: the majority will become the majority-minority population by the mid-21st century (Frey).
Part three – the shortest part – begins in a similar tone to part two, but acknowledges a change: that “the niggers made, make it…the niggers are still here.” In this section, Staggerlee is wondering about how Whites think about Black survival, and ultimately debates what survival means. Staggerlee illustrates one survival technique using a character named Beulah, who works for “the alabaster lady of the house” – she “gives me a look, sucks her teeth and rolls her eyes in the direction of the lady’s back, and keeps on keeping on” (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 11). This alludes to a shift in the conversation between Beulah and the alabaster lady, who “changes the subject to Education, or Full Employment, or the Welfare rolls” as if there was a start to building a more equal relationship:
…Don’t be dismayed.
We know how you feel. You can trust us.
Yeah. I would like to believe you.
But we are not talking about belief. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 13)
Staggerlee is acknowledging that the road to restoring the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor is long and hard; the road is not about belief, but about action.
The fourth and final part represents a shift from Staggerlee thinking about the “Great Man” to thinking about the “Kinsmen” in this life.
Ah! Kinsmen, if I could make you see
the crime is not what you have done to me! (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 17)
The reflections that Staggerlee cites in this part explain how White domination is ending and how his people survived:
During this long travail
our ancestors spoke to us, and we listened,
and we tried to make you hear life in our song (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 19)
Yet, in the last lines of the poem, Staggerlee knows there is not hope even if there is kinship and focuses on “life everlasting” and to
…decline to imitate the Son of the Morning,
and rule in Hell. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 19)
This final part as a whole ties together much of Staggerlee’s thinking throughout the poem and grounds his life experience in that of his ancestors, creating imagery that makes the reader recall all of the wonders of Africa. There is a strong sense is that White domination is ending in Staggerlee’s mind – literally and figuratively.
Every stanza in the seventeen-page-long poem “Staggerlee wonders” can be unpacked to reveal how Black and White cultures clash with each other throughout American history, and in particular throughout contemporary American history – about the period of time that Staggerlee is reflecting upon (1950s through the 1970s), about the period of time Baldwin wrote the piece (early 1980s), and about the present day (2019). It is a stunning example of how a poem can be political and remain beautifully poetic. It recalls heartache, yet raises up humanity. It gives White people the benefit of the doubt, yet also questions whether or not the oppressor will really change. What’s more, Baldwin does so without using the word Black or White. Rather “nigger” and “Great Man” and “pink alabaster lady” are used to describe the people who are in Staggerlee’s reflections.
Given this significant example of a poem that is political, there are only two published literary critiques of “Staggerlee wonders”: a comparison of Staggerlee in Baldwin’s and Toni Morrison’s work (Miller) and a quick analysis within a broader conversation about the legend of Stagolee. This poem seems like gold for literary critiques. For instance, there might be much to learn from the fact that Baldwin does not use “Black” or “White” throughout the piece, which in and of itself is a strong statement on social constructions. Baldwin makes a statement about how language can be used powerfully to illustrate truth and justice. Nikki Finney’s Introduction to the Jimmy’s Blues and other poems – by itself, an example of the power of language – explains the impact of Baldwin’s language:
I do not believe James Baldwin can be wholly read without first understanding White men and their penchant for tyranny and “unrelenting brutality.” If you read Baldwin without this truth, you will mistake Baldwin’s use of the work nigger as how he saw himself, instead of that long-suffering character, imagined, invented, and marched to the conveyor belt as if it was the hanging tree, by the founding fathers of the Republic, in order that they might hold on for as long as possible to “the very last White country the world will ever” (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems xiv)
Finney’s framework leaves no doubt that Baldwin’s poem “Staggerlee wonders” is a political statement about Black-White relations. Indeed, Brown suggests that Baldwin might have used Bobby Seale, who was integral to the rise of the Black Panthers during the 1970s, as his mental model for Staggerlee. If so, this is a strong political statement given the Black Panthers’ effect on politics, which at one point led then Governor Ronald Regan of California (Republican), to call for a ban on guns. In other words, Black people led White people to ban guns, a concept that seems foreign today when many White people refuse to give up their Second Amendment right to own a gun.
As Baldwin is analyzed with this political lens, several other nuggets of contextual clues emerge within the notes peppered in his publications of the few scholars who analyzed “Staggerlee wonders”. For example, the politics that Baldwin engages in with “Staggerlee wonders” are the same the politics described in less-than-beautiful ways by Lee Atwater, who was Republican strategist – an advisor to Presidents Reagan and Bush in addition to serving as the Republican National Committee Chairman in the 1980s. Atwater was recorded in 1981 as saying:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’— that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] Blacks get hurt worse than Whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger’.” (Rick Perlstein, “Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy,” Nation, 13 November 2012)
Atwater is explicit in his description about how Black and White culture clashes, so explicit that one cannot help by wonder: Can there be hope for America? Baldwin’s writing and his way of framing the two cultures give some rays of hope because of the poetic nature of it. A poem is not the likely place to confront race. Yet, this concept is exemplified in “Staggerlee wonders”, as the poem disarms readers and makes them think. The prose clarifies that Baldwin listened to the various meanings of the legend described within other forms of art – music and oral histories – and continued to ask questions about the meaning of the legend. Then, Baldwin created a poem illustrating his thoughts on race as the politics of America ebbed and flowed during his lifetime.
The nature of poetry and politics has a foundational question: when is poetry political? If politics is a fight for change, when we know the context of the poet, we begin to understand how the poet translated the political context into art and, therefore, the poem becomes political. A deeper analysis might be to understand who was able to access the art (in this case a poem): where was it published? Did librarians buy it and include it in the stacks? Another analysis could be to understand the impact of art. For example, organizational theorists have introduced the multiple stages of grief as a way to understand the change process (Kübler-Ross). And, to manage grief, sometimes a poem is in order.
For example, a recent biography of Baldwin by Joseph Vogel analyzes Baldwin’s life in the 1980’s. At the time, Vogel argues, Baldwin felt a strong force pulling him back to America from France, where he sought intermittent sanctuary throughout his life. Baldwin needed this sanctuary in the 1970’s as he needed time to reflect on the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s. In one interview given during the 1970’s Baldwin offers thoughts about intersectionality, a term that summarizes his life as a gay, Black man rather succinctly:
I’m in the process of experimenting. I say a new language. I might say a new morality, which, in my terms, comes to the same thing. And that’s on all levels––the level of color, the level of identity, the level of sexual identity, what love means, especially in consumer society, for example. Everything is in question, according to me. (Vogel 25)
Baldwin’s poem and the chance to analyze it offers us the chance to take steps to understand the long and deep history of racism in America and to read beyond the canon of literature that is present throughout the curricula in high schools, in colleges, and in graduate schools – even when you are an activist scholar. And, in perhaps the best way to honor the legacy of Baldwin’s body of work, to use the fodder that Baldwin gives the reader to identify ways to be a co-conspirator in making the dream of a just society – a society where its members care for each other regardless of race – a reality.
Alexander, Michelle. New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010, http://www.ebrary.com.
Andrewes, Simon. “The Story of the Story of Stagger Lee.” International Socialism (00208736), no. 154, 2017, p. 179. edo.
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—. No Name in the Street. Dial Press, 1972.
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—. There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. Fortress Press, 1991.
Brown, Cecil. Stagolee Shot Billy. Harvard University Press, 2003.
D.Quentin Miller. “Trends in James Baldwin Criticism 2010–13.” James Baldwin Review, Vol 3, Iss 1, Pp 186-202 (2017), no. 1, 2017, p. 186. edsdoj, EBSCOhost, doi:10.7227/JBR.3.12.
Field, Douglas. James Baldwin. Liverpool University Press, 2011.
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Hobart, Mike. “The Life of a Song: Stagger Lee.” The Financial Times, 2018.
Jerry, Anthony Russell. “The First Time I Heard the Word: The ‘N‐Word’ as a Present and Persistent Racial Epithet.” Transforming Anthropology, vol. 26, no. 1, Apr. 2018, pp. 36–49.
Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth. On Death and Dying. Scribner, 1969, https://books.google.com/books?id=pPP0-om_SFMC.
Lynn Orilla Scott. “Trends in James Baldwin Criticism 2001–10.” James Baldwin Review, Vol 2, Iss 0, Pp 168-196 (2016), no. 0, 2016, p. 168. EBSCOhost, doi:10.7227/JBR.2.11.
Mencken, H. L. “Designations for Colored Folk.” American Speech, vol. 19, no. 3, Oct. 1944, p. 161. edb.
Miller, D. Quentin. “Playing a Mean Guitar: The Legacy of Staggerlee in Baldwin and Morrison.” James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative Critical and Theoretical Essays, edited by Lovalerie King and Lynn Orilla Scott, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, pp. 121–48.
Motley, Carol M., and Kellina M. Craig-Henderson. “Epithet or Endearment? Examining Reactions Among Those of the African Diaspora to an Ethnic Epithet.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 37, no. 6, July 2007, pp. 944–63.
Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. HarperCollins, 1982.
Payne, C. M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. University of California Press, 1996.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau, 2014. edshlc.
The Annotated “Stagger Lee.” http://artsites.ucsc.edu/GDead/agdl/stagger.html. Accessed 8 Oct. 2018.
Vogel, Joseph. James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era. University of Illinois Press, 2018.
 (Brown 206–11) This citation also highlights how the legend of Staggerlee also has varying spellings of his name.